For aspiring fabricators, the story of Lakeside Surfaces Inc. of Norton Shores, MI, is a model of how to grow a business: start small, grow intelligently, ride out the tough times, and stay prepared for the future. Today, the company is a leading processor in its region, and it is poised for sustained long-term growth.

Lakeside Surfaces Inc. is primarily focused on custom-designed countertops for residential homes. “The vast majority of our work is ‘hard’ surfaces produced using quartz products, but we also specialize in granite, soapstone, marble and occasionally even semi-precious materials,” explained Rob Riegler, President of Lakeside Surfaces Inc. “Additionally, we fabricate more complex products like tub and fireplace surrounds, full-height backsplashes, shower walls and innovative options including mitered drop panels and stacked chiseled edges. Smaller entities of Lakeside Surfaces Inc. include fabrication of acrylic countertops — solid surfaces — as well as custom parts in both hard and solid surface for commercial installations and large development projects.

“Our longstanding relationship with Cambria is extremely important to us,” Riegler went on to say. “We began doing business with them in April of 2004, then in 2011 we were welcomed into an exclusive partnership. Being a member of the Lexus Partner Program has empowered us to build our fabrication model bigger and stronger while staying true to the customer service principles that are important to both us, and to Cambria.”

The business was founded by Riegler more than 20 years ago. “Rob started the business in 1992, and he was doing Corian,” said Matt Neiger, Vice President at Lakeside. “In the late ‘90s, he was involved with some of the Big Box stores, and DuPont Zodiaq was just starting to come out, and they asked him if he was interested in purchasing machinery to do quartz. He was the first to work with Zodiaq and quartz in Michigan.”

“Lakeside is truly a textbook American success story,” Riegler added. “The early years of the business were operated out of my garage. We have always been a fabricator of countertop solutions, but the product mix and approach to the market has changed quite a bit since our inception.”

Inside the shop

On the fabrication floor, primary cutting is completed using a double-table Park Fusion combination bridge saw/waterjet. The machine runs on five axes, which allows it to make turns and rotate for angled cuts used in drop-miter products. “This prevents the need for a 45-degree angled cut on a CNC, which is much less efficient,” Riegler explained. “Using the Fusion has freed up a ton of space and time on our CNCs, which are doing edge profiling. Additionally, the waterjet, which collaborates with the saw on basic parts, features 60,000 psi for creating extremely elaborate parts and inlays.”

After being cut to size, the parts are placed onto one of our four CNCs, three of which are single-bed Titans from Park Industries, with the fourth being a Speed 3 from CMS/Brembana.

Tooling for the CNCs is from Granite City Tool. “Our shop uses an abrasive tooling process that includes seven tools per operation, typically four diamonds and three polish wheels, or occasionally five and two,” said Kevin Dumont, Production Manager. “The series of tools performs a progressive shave followed by a finish polish with the goal of coming off the machine ready to install. Our machines allow us the ability to utilize 204 tools, and the entire process is water intensive. This includes machine operations as well as any hand polishing. Our polishing department uses a series of 3-inch polish pads, typically in a five-step process, but very little has to be hand finished.”

While the main workpieces are processed on the CNCs, backsplashes and similar parts are polished using a Fastback, also from Park Industries. The Fastback is a straight line polish machine that completes parts that require a flat eased, mirror finish.

Material handling throughout the shop is performed using a series of three overhead cranes and hand operated vacuum lifts from Anver.

“Because our entire process is water intensive, we have a robust water reclamation system,” Riegler said. “We have recently upgraded our system and now reclaim nearly 100% of the 200,000 gallons of water we use every day back into holding tanks. Gray water is used as a halo spray that cools the tooling and prevents dust, while clear water is run through five micron filters and sent through the vacuum pumps and center spindles of the CNCs.”

A new level of technology

With all of the new equipment in place, Lakeside Surfaces Inc. is achieving optimal efficiency. “In the last few years, we have really turned a corner in making our process more efficient,” Riegler said. “Most recently, we have simply been adding capacity, but prior to that, we made investments in technology that have allowed us to cut full days off our production time. One of the most significant was moving away from our bridge saw and utilizing the Fusion. Because we can now cut complex parts instead of basic ones, our CNC time, which is in high demand, can be focused almost exclusively on edge processes. This gives us a huge boost to our square footage capacity. The Fastback is also a fairly recent addition and allowed us to free up a tremendous amount of time in our polish department, which is also in high demand.”

Lakeside Surfaces Inc.

Norton Shores, MI

Type of work: Fabrication and installation of quartz surfacing and natural stone for a wide range of applications

Technology: Fusion combination bridge saw/waterjet from Park Industries of St. Cloud, MN; three Titan CNC stoneworking centers from Park Industries; Speed 3 CNC stoneworking center from CMS/Brembana of Caledonia, MI; CNC tooling from Granite City Tool of Waite Park, MN; Fastback edger from Park Industries; hydraulic lifts from Anver of Hudson, MA; Laser LT-55 XL templating systems from Laser Products of Romeoville, IL; Slabsmith system from Northwood Designs of Antwerp, NY

Number of Employees: 80

Production Rate: 1,000 square feet of stone and quartz surfacing per day

Lakeside has also made investments beyond heavy equipment. “Apart from our actual manufacturing process, we have implemented two powerful additions to our process that have a dramatic impact on our yield, which gives us more capital to invest in further process improvements,” Riegler said. “Slabsmith technology allows us to create exceedingly beautiful products, with better flow of grain and patterning, and it also helped our yield. When paired with our state-of-the-art inspection center, our ability to work with partials and color match materials has risen to a whole new level. The center has four different light configurations and 50 bulbs to mimic various light sources and angles. We want to show how natural light will affect the way a material looks; for example, early morning versus late afternoon light.”

“We can comfortably fit three slabs in the inspection station,” Riegler added. “One person can manipulate the three slabs and see how they match up, and they can take gloss readings. Color match is one thing, but the sheen and shine is also important. We want to see the seams and how the tops will line up together.”

Templating is done using the Laser LT-55 XL system from Laser Products, which is the third generation of the company’s templating process, and each one has been a significant upgrade. Moving to a digital process a few years ago saved a great deal of company resources over stick templating, but this last upgrade to lasers has further increased efficiency, accuracy and the company’s versatility in the field. In addition, the company’s template teams utilize tablets on site to pre-compose its engineering drawings, which allows that department to push even more square footage than ever before.

Intelligent growth

As the economy continues to rebound, Lakeside Surfaces Inc. is carefully planning its future investments to accommodate growth. “The end game is capacity, but also efficiency,” Riegler said. “It takes careful planning to make the best decision based on the current state of the production model. Sometimes it is more cost-effective to add a machine; other times it makes more sense to improve the efficiency of the process. In both cases, we are rewarded with increased capacity, so the decision really comes down to maximizing the return on our investment. While some of the work that we can do now easily may have been cost prohibitive a few years ago, most of our investments have merely improved our process as opposed to giving us the ability to create new products.”

Currently, Lakeside Surfaces Inc. has around 80 employees, and the company is implementing a system in which some workers are cross-trained. “In the past, we have relied on specializations within departments,” Riegler said. “Unique processes were handled by specific employees with specialized training. Recently, we have been moving to streamline all processes and training within each department. It has become clear that the better we can equip teams of people, the more efficient the entire workflow gets.”

When searching for new employees, Lakeside Surfaces Inc. utilizes a range of methods. “Our human resources department utilizes a wide variety of strategies to find quality employees,” Riegler said. “These include partnerships with staffing agencies, advertising in local classifieds and direct postings on our website, among other methods. We also take advantage of aptitude and personality tests to assist in personnel decisions.”

Once hired, the company has a strong and diverse training program for all new employees.

“We want people to know where they fit in with the vision of the company,” Neiger added. “The success of our business is about people. We make countertops, but what we really do is create careers here. As we’ve brought people on, the good employees might know someone else who is good, and it really has created a great environment. They know there are high expectations, but it is also a place where they can have a career; people get real value out of working here.”

Sales and marketing

Lakeside Surfaces Inc. reports a capacity of approximately 1,000 square feet of material processed per day. “We don’t really measure in kitchens or projects because it doesn’t give an accurate picture of our capacity, especially when you have to factor in the smaller vanities and OEM parts we manufacture,” Riegler said. “Our main customer base is independent kitchen and bath dealers. In rare cases, we service builders, architects and designers, provided they meet a very specific set of criteria. It is very important to us that we foster long-term relationships with our primary customer base, which has always been independent kitchen and bath dealers.”

The company services all of Michigan as well as some areas of Ohio. “We regularly travel all over the state to install or deliver countertop projects,” Schelhas said.

Lakeside Surfaces Inc. is a member of the Artisan Group, a North American network of independent countertop professionals. “We’ve been involved for a little over two years, and that’s a great group to be a part of,” explained Ray Schelhas, Director of Marketing. “They supply us with the Artisan Collection, which is our most popular source of granite. We collectively work with 34 other members, and through AG&M, we essentially import our own stone. We have access to some unique products as well, such as soapstone. Because of the buying power, that the group has, we’ve been able to consistently supply soapstone, which is becoming increasingly popular in our region, especially as outdoor kitchens become popular.”

With the recession well past them, the staff at Lakeside Surfaces Inc. is focused on long-term success. “Rob [Riegler] has viewed everything we have faced as an opportunity to improve and move the business forward,” Schelhas said. “The biggest challenges we face are the same things facing all businesses these days. The uncertainty related to the economic and political climate make it hard to really invest and grow. We have been able to systematically improve and grow our fabrication with careful planning and hard work. In 2008, we had about 45 employees, and we laid off half of the workforce during the recession. Since that time, we’ve had a renewed commitment to make sure the business is financially sound, no matter what happens with the economy. Sales have tripled over the last four years, and it has been quite a ride.”

“There is a balance between seizing opportunities and not putting your business in a difficult position if the economy were to turn again,” Neiger added. “We saw this during the recession, when we saw some good companies go under. There is so much opportunity here, but we have to temper our enthusiasm.”

Going through the economic downturn also gave the staff at Lakeside a renewed approach to the company culture. “Our priorities changed from countertops to people,” Riegler said. “We started on focusing on creating careers instead of jobs. Back in 2009, we had to have a lot of faith that this would be more than a countertop company. We had to have faith in the vision of the company and faith in one another. Ultimately, that’s who we are as a company, and that has set us apart from our competitors — great vision and great people.”